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As a parent of two kids under 5, I worry often about how their lives might be shaped by a warmer planet with even more people and pollution. While I work to limit our collective footprint by conserving water, energy, and other resources, I’m also laying the groundwork for them to appreciate their own ecological impact.

Even my two-year-old knows food scraps go in the compost and one day soon will comprehend why Mommy won’t turn up the heat when she refuses to wear a sweater or her sister chooses to go barefoot in January.

As a teacher at a number of college campuses over the years, I have also noted how much (or how little) my students recognize their own contributions to environmental problems. One of the schools I taught at was refreshingly overt in its messages to students about their responsibilities as environmental citizens, while others remained more or less silent on the subject. I take heart in the fact that I rarely see one-use water bottles on campus anymore, and I hope someday soon the disposable coffee cups – ubiquitous symbols of thoughtless consumption—likewise disappear.

Virtually every waking moment presents us with decisions that affect our ecological footprint, and the choices we make for and with children have a powerful influence on the condition of the planet they inherit. As parents and teachers, we have the opportunity to help shift our culture’s dominant paradigm of the natural world as a boundless resource for humans to exploit to one that recognizes the limits of growth and sees the wisdom of treading lightly on the earth. Below are some strategies for helping the children in your life develop the habits of mind their generation will need to help undo some of the damage done by decades of carelessness.

Get Outside

Environmental psychologists have highlighted our culture’s lack of connection to the natural world as a critical factor in our disengagement from ecological issues. As a result of ever-increasing digital distractions and increased parental concerns about safety, kids are spending very little time outdoors, creating an epidemic of what Richard Louv has famously termed nature-deficit disorder. Your first step in raising conserving kids is to create as many opportunities as possible for being in, learning about, and appreciating the wonders of nature. Cultivating a relationship to the natural world is a crucial precursor to taking responsibility for our impact upon it.

Some suggestions:

Take family and free time outside.

Go for a walk or bike ride together, or grab a field guide and learn to identify different types of plants, trees, or birds. Stroll around your local farmers’ market to buy meal ingredients, and keep an eye out for local farms hosting activity days for kids. Join a CSA and make the weekly trip to pick your own produce a treasured part of your family’s summer routine. See what programming for kids is offered by your local nature centers, zoos, and science museums.

Technology is an undeniable lure in our kids’ lives, but you can limit how much tech time they have and balance it with some healthy outdoor exploration. Children can play for hours building forts, climbing trees, examining plants and insects, and just roaming around enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of nature.

Garden with your children.

Get kids involved in planting seeds, tending gardens, and harvesting food, which not only introduces them to plant biology, but also has been shown to help them develop a healthy taste for veggies. Set aside a part of the garden as a kids’ patch and let them pick what to plant there. No place to garden? Even growing a few herbs or veggies in pots on a patio or balcony will help kids develop an understanding of how to grow plants and where their food comes from.

Set a Good Example – and Draw Attention to It

Home is where children learn norms about conserving (or not) in daily life, so teach them to think carefully about how they use energy, water, food, and other resources. One of the reasons people don’t think more about environmental issues is that they’re not often asked to, so call attention to the decisions you’ve made to buy less stuff, to buy used, to eat less meat, or to use renewable energy. Give yourself kudos (out loud!) for the shifts you’ve made in your habits that make you a better environmental citizen. Praise kids for their eco-friendly actions.

Find teachable moments daily. You have opportunities every day to help kids understand the impact their decisions have. As you shop for groceries, explain why you’re refilling your own container in the bulk aisle (and have kids help!), why your meals focus on vegetables rather than meat, or why you don’t buy strawberries in winter. When you shop for consumer products, take kids through your mental processes as you select items with less packaging, that are energy-efficient, or are made without industrial chemicals. Help them learn to appreciate the toys and clothes they already have and explain why you choose not to buy things you don’t need.

On walks around town, point out solar panels and talk about how they work. Explain why you’re biking instead of driving to run errands, why you carry your own coffee cup and water bottle and bring your own bags to the store. Show them how little trash you have and let them marvel at how cool it is that we can recycle food waste into soil for the garden and metal, glass, plastic and paper into new bottles and coloring books.

If your kids are old enough, you might want to share some of the excellent movies from The Story of Stuff or introduce them to some of the learning tools at As children understand that their actions have ecological consequences, they can take pride in the fact they are working to create a healthier planet. When children have tools to make a difference, they are more likely to feel empowered as part of a solution rather than fearful of overwhelming problems.

Work with Your Schools

Many schools include environmental education components in their curricula. Find out what they’re doing and try to build on it by reading books about related subjects or creating weekend projects that apply the information kids are given in school. The EPA has some great resources for teachers and parents on their website, and you can contact your region’s Environmental Education Coordinator for help developing your school’s curriculum.

If you are a teacher, consider introducing an ecological component to your classes or your school’s curriculum. It’s vital that kids have an understanding of their place in the natural world and possess basic ecological literacy. Teach them how their actions affect ecosystems and expect them to be thoughtful consumers of resources.

In English classes, consider including texts that examine the portrayal of landscapes and natural systems, or use the lens of ecology to examine how works ranging from Little House on the Prairie to contemporary films present human relationships to the earth. Problem-based learning and research assignments in the sciences, language arts, and history could all be tailored to include an environmental focus, ranging from studying water cycles to considering how westward expansion altered the American landscape.

It’s becoming more common for schools to have composting programs. If your child’s does not yet have one, speak with the principal about getting one going. It’s a terrific teaching opportunity, can save the school money, and ultimately helps your county’s bottom line by reducing the need to build additional landfills. Many composting proponents hope that, as happened with recycling many decades ago, kids will learn about composting in schools and teach it to their parents.

Celebrate Success

Most importantly, whether you’re a teacher or parent or both, teach hope. Though it can be hard to contain your frustration at continued inaction and missteps on critical environmental problems, try to pay particular attention to all the wins you see, from the proliferation of solar energy to companies that have committed to Cradle to Cradle design. Celebrate that organic farmland continues to expand as we support farmers and companies that commit to sustainable agriculture.

Some of these ideas can be challenging to explain to younger children, but you can start introducing ecological concepts quite early. Basic information about making choices that are good for you and the planet can be shared with preschoolers when they ask for a bottled drink, for instance. Older kids can be encouraged to participate in environmental clubs or develop their own planet-improving projects. It’s vital that we instill a sense of responsibility and personal efficacy to help this generation tackle the enormous ecological challenges they will face as adults.

Additional Resources:
Are Children Spending Enough Time Outdoors?
7 Ways to Help Your Child Cope with Climate Change
Gardening with Children
Children and Nature Network
Environmental Websites for Kids

Koger, Susan M. and Winter, Deborah Du Nann. The Psychology of Environmental Problems: Psychology for Sustainability, 2010.
Manning, Christie. The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior, 2009.